Dennis Kam

Other Articles, Reviews and Booklets

Dennis Kam: In Pursuit of the Positive

(Evading Expressionism If You Want To)

Delivered at the SCI Region IV Congress
Stetson University, November 3, 1995




I wish to preface this paper with a few remarks in order to qualify some of the ideas presented- - for I believe that an understanding of their nature and intent, as well as the context out of which they arise, is as important as an understanding of their meaning. In fact, in the event that you disagree with my ideas, I will be satisfied if you at least understand why I propose them.

First, I would like to say that I speak from the standpoint of a practicing composer - not of a scientist or researcher, supporting ideas with data obtained from statistical or experimental studies. Ideas in this paper emanate primarily from direct involvement with composing and all that it entails - and numerous moments of reflection on what it is all about - rather than from mere observation, research, speculation, or theorizing. (I should mention, however, that as composers, we listen and react to a lot of music.)

While I realize that some of my notions may lack the kind of data offering empirical verification for belief and assent, I also believe that ideas verified or bolstered by, for example, statistical surveys of human perception are problematic because human reactions, feelings, and thoughts change over periods of time - and therefore cannot be conclusively reliable in describing modes of perception in art and music, which by nature, are also in constant flux. Obviously, this is not to say that statistical research is without value for it can provide concrete evidence for widely accepted or long-held beliefs and intuitive assumptions that are often true. Yet, even if information obtained from statistical tools were considered to be useful in establishing support for ideas within a certain time frame, they would still depend upon too many variables to be definitive or all inclusive. I sense that you and I, who are involved in the actual activity of composing, are liable to be more suspicious of supporting our beliefs with this sort of research than others who do not compose; we are more sensitive to its epistemological limitations.

Actually if anything, my personal slant to compositional issues has been influenced mostly by relatively recent thought in aesthetics and the philosophy of science. In these realms, I am especially indebted to a variety of scholars such as Peter Kivy, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Stephen Davies, Thomas Kuhn, and Paul Feyerabend. I mention their names because I have learned much from their writings and believe that they should be read by all composers. Unfortunately, time constraints and the nature of this presentation will preclude any attempt to deal with their superb work here. In addition, my approach will necessitate that ideas be stated without much scholarly documentation and elaboration. For this reason, you may feel that I open doors to many issues surrounding the central issue some of them in closets -- without letting you in. I hope that this will nevertheless create, in effect, some dialogue regarding these issues.

The second thing that I would like to say, with prefatory intent, is that my ideas should not be taken as prescriptive. [...]

A Study and Performance Guide to Dennis Kams Sonata Ibis for Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano

and a Performance Comparison to Four Earlier Versions of the Work

A doctoral essay by Biljana Milovanovic.
May 2008

In 2005, Dennis Kam completed the Sonata Ibis which the ensemble Ibis Camerata premiered at the Festival Miami at the University of Miami that same year. The composition is the last of five versions of the same work, originally written for piano solo. The work was recorded by the Ibis Camerata, on their CD titled Glisten, and released in 2006 on the Albany Records music label. The composition presents an important addition to the existing repertoire for the ensemble of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano.

Sonata Ibis is a single movement work not following traditional forms. The work reflects the composer’s conscious aim of making works with different versions. One of the issues that this study takes up is the evolution of the Sonata Ibis through all five versions. Analysis of musical materials and techniques used in the Sonata are also a part of the study.

One chapter of this paper deals with Dennis Kam’s biography. One chapter discusses the formal structure and musical idiom of the work. Performance-related issues from the ensemble and a pianist perspective are discussed in the remaining two chapters.

Reviewing Dennis Kam's CD "Chamber Music": "Music of Extreme Beautiy"

Miami Herald, May 5, 2010

Defining or even categorizing American music is difficult enough without Dennis Kam throwing his spanners in the works. Kam is a composer whose music thrives on a unique sort of spiraling repetition, each almost identical phrase combining to form a musical aesthetic in which each element is clear and present, minute structures joining forces to form larger ones.

To call this career retrospective a chamber music disc is slightly misleading, as it also comprises some late 1970s solo piano music. The series of études, intriguingly called pre-Socratic and given the title Ontologies, is expertly performed by Amy Tarantino; they involve fascinating rehearsals of conventional harmonic devices. The third of these presents Kam’s unique brand of repetition in stark miniature. Something approaching a plagal cadence is juxtaposed with a minor third motive, and both are restated in something akin to constant flux, complete with octave transpositions. By contrast, the first centers around a D, but very little in the way of conventional sonority is employed; rather, implication is the order of the day, with octave jumps implying harmonies as the piece wends its way forward, flirting with E Major and A Major without ever quite stating them in unquestionable terms.

Dimitri Ashkenazy, clarinetist son of a famous father in no need of introduction in these pages, and cellist Ross Harbaugh prove to be equally sympathetic interpreters of Kam’s music. All of the previously cataloged descriptors apply, and Kam’s commitment to his vision has only deepened. Whether performing the rather frenetic and driven 1985 Sonata for Cello and Piano, or the meditative and spacious Lokahi for clarinet, cello, and piano, the group is quite obviously inhabiting the music, as each dynamic and gesture become important to the overall listening experience, all helped by a very natural recording and production.

The question remains: How American is this music? It wears any experimental elements lightly, so we are not in the myriad worlds of Charles Ives, John Cage, or Alvin Lucier. This is sublimated Americana, not too far removed from European influence but certainly not enslaved by it. Kam is constantly casting backward glances at tonality but never quite willing to bid it farewell. This is music of extreme beauty with a slight edge that bespeaks frontiers glimpsed from a comfortable distance.


Dennis Kam